Merton, The New Man, and Me

I had a very personal meeting with Thomas Merton while doing a long stretch in the hole at Norfolk prison sometime in the early 70s. I wrote a short paper on this meeting, so I will merely try as brlefly as possible to tell how profound this meeting was.

First, a little history: I was in the hole because I tried to get a work strike going at Walpole. The department of correction sent me to Norfolk to rid the place of my bad influence among other prisoners. While in the hole, I began a hunger strike which lasted 17 days until a visiting priest convínced me it was agaìnst God's wishes for me to harm myself this way.

The cells were stark. The only books allowed in the cells were a Bible or a Koran. I read the Bible through and through at least twice out of sheer boredom, and I retained very little of what I read. I found under my mattress a worn copy of Seeds Of Contemplation. I would have preferred something by James A. Michener or Harold Robbins, but again, out of boredom, I read this Merton guy.

Remember where you were the day Kennedy was killed or when the planes flew into the World Trade Center buildings in New York? There are moments in our lives, some tragic, as the aforementioned, and some beautiful, as the first kiss of the woman who would become your wife, and the subsequent birth of a child. In retrospect I am not sure I read Merton so much as "consume" him. It was as though someone had lifted that seventh veil and made me feel God's love and not just sense it.

I had to be careful reading, for if the guard caught me, it would add more time to my stay in the hole. I used to wait and time his rounds, and soon as he passed my cell I would pick up the book and read. The cell window was our communicatron highway among the other prisoners. There were thick steel bars and beyond that a plexiglass window with crisscrossed bars and covered with a steel mesh screen. I went to the window and read passages of Seeds to the other guys and discuss what was just heard.

The Tao Te Ching in verse 35 states "Grasp Great Signs." The first Sunday when the priest had my food slot opened to give me the blessed Eucharist, I begged him to smuggle in any other books he could find by Thomas Merton; and again, I would read to my fellow prisoners. Lots of poetry, as I recall. In fact, it inspired me to write my own poetry and, many years later, to have a book publíshed of them.

This priest used to refer to me as his "Philadelphia Catholic," and I never did ask hím what he meant by that, because after all, I was reared in Philly and was an altar boy at the Cathedral. The priest would bring a hard plastic milk crate wlth him to sit so that his face was even with the food slot as we talked about Merton. Merton made me understand that God was not some sort of mystical entity, but rather, an integral part of everything that I was or ever would be.

Forty years later I am readíng The New Man and meditating after many lines, to not only absorb what Father Merton is saying but to make his words part of my every day life. He speaks of con­templation this way:

"Contemplation is a mark of a fully
mature Christian life. It makes the
believer no longer a slave or a ser-
vant of a Divine Master, no fonger
the fearful keeper of a difficult
law, no longer even an obedient and
submissíve son who is still too young
to participate ín his Father's coun-
sels. Contemplation is that wisdom
whích makes man the friend of God,
a thing which Aristotle thought
to be impossible. For how, he said,
can a man be God's fríend? Friendship
implies equality. That is precisely
the message of the Gospel."

I meditated on these words for weeks to fully grasp what Merton was saying. To be God's friend is something I never dreamed a possibillity. How could lowly me be God's friend? I pay more attention to my worldly friends than I ever do to God. I am not a good friend to Him. Our faith teaches us that God knows us and loves us no matter who we are. I find myself feeling bouts of guilt because I am God's friend ín the morning and eveníng when I pray, or for that hour I may spend in mass. I treat my worldy friends so much better than I ever treat Jesus Christ. Until reading The New Man, I spent time trying to atone for my disregard for my friend, Jesus. I began to wonder if I was praying in worship, or in fear because I hurt Him by my neglect?

Merton says that He is not a separate object but the realíty within our own reality, the Being within our being, the lífe of our life. The journey as Merton saw it was through our own soul. It is a difficult journey, fraught with distractions on the way from the head to the heart. It is a journey I will remain on for the rest of my life, back and forth, until I feel that I am indeed pleasing in the eye of the Lord. This rang true to me even more when I read in New Man:

"We only come to know God fully ín
and through Christ. And our knowledge
of God through Christ depends on our
spiritual union with Christ in the
central mystery of our Redemption—
­His death and Ressurection.
It is the movement that our will makes
when it is mysteriously united with
His, as if we were but one will, one

We are the body of Christ.

Semper Fidelis,

Joe Labriola

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